For decades, tour operators have been printing costly paper brochures in order to better illustrate and sell their destinations and itineraries. And despite the hefty investment, the onset of the internet, the proliferation of email and social media and talk of virtual reality and artificial intelligence being the wave of the future, those tangible brochures are proving that, against all odds, not only is print not dead, it's experiencing a comeback.

"For years, we said, 'Okay, the brochures are going to go away,'" said Ginny Caragol, executive director of leisure for Valerie Wilson Travel in New York. "But as I've seen them coming back and having a second life, I think they're going to stay here for a while."

What Caragol and other travel sellers say they have noticed is that, rather than fade into obscurity as agents and consumers have moved to relying more on their mobile devices and on web-based materials, paper brochures are in the midst of a bit of a renaissance. The current revival of the print brochure is being fueled by demand from travelers, both young and old, as well as by the fact that travel companies have seriously upped their brochure game of late.

"People still like to have something tangible that they can hold in their hands," said Amy Eben, of Travel Leaders Travel Advantage in Sioux Center, Iowa. "They want to walk out of the door of an agency and take something with them to remember the conversation. They want to be able to take notes and mark certain resorts and itineraries and then share it with their friends. We often hear clients say, 'We are getting together with our friends this weekend and will discuss the options.' A paper brochure makes that easier."

While some travel agents noted that it's often their older clientele who still want to have and engage with paper brochures, the medium is also back in vogue with younger travelers.

Adam Cooper, president of Contiki USA, said, "Interestingly, there is a bit of a trend toward 'analog' with millennials and Gen Z. We're seeing that with the revived popularity of vinyl over digital streaming, or books over e-readers. It's all part of the overall nostalgia trend."

A foodie-focused section of Contiki’s brochure.
A foodie-focused section of Contiki’s brochure.

Contiki released a 2018 brochure that feels much more like a glossy travel magazine, complete with colorful features, travel tips and engaging photography, a total departure from the paper brochures of the past. Those early brochures were crammed with itinerary and pricing details, all of which can now be obtained online, arguably more easily and with more up-to-date info.

"We try to make our brochures much closer to an editorial publication than to a catalog," Cooper said.

Less information, more inspiration

While brochures are no less relevant today than they were before access to the internet became so prolific, the purpose of the brochure has evolved to complement rather than compete with the web.

"In the early days, brochures were our only way to introduce a new product to travel agencies," said Amy Weyman, executive vice president of marketing for Abercrombie & Kent USA. "If a journey wasn't featured in a brochure, there was no way for the travel trade to learn about the offering. These original brochures were focused on itineraries. Now, it's much more about inspiration."

Before the internet, paper brochures were the only resource travel agents had for providing the day-to-day details of itineraries, along with maps and images. They were also reference documents listing departure dates and pricing for any given itinerary.

Brick-and-mortar agencies often had stacks upon stacks of brochures they could reference, depending on clients' interests. The brochures were part reference guide, part selling tool. Agents could distribute them to clients looking to make informed vacation decisions, not just for tours, of course, but for cruises, resorts and any number of travel products.

Now, however, that dynamic has changed. A growing number of travel sellers are home-based, and much of the information clients need is available online. Travel agents are now using brochures more strategically, and thus the brochures themselves have evolved to accommodate their new purpose.

"How we utilize brochures has evolved over the years," said Stacy Wangelin, of Travel Leaders Travel Advisors in Oconomowoc, Wis. "We no longer have them out on display where the clients can just grab them. We use a collaborative process to understand the client's needs and then select one or two suppliers to recommend. At that point, if appropriate, we present them with a brochure that supports our recommendation."

Wangelin said that while the internet offers a lot of information, it can also be overwhelming for clients and can make it hard to clearly see and compare vacation options when jumping between webpages. The brochures help her "make sense of it all for them."

A page from Abercrombie & Kent’s 2018 Antarctica brochure, which is more of an editorial product than its 20th century predecessors.
A page from Abercrombie & Kent’s 2018 Antarctica brochure, which is more of an editorial product than its 20th century predecessors.

One of the challenges in the evolution of the paper brochure has been that agents themselves now engage with brochures very differently. Some reported that they'd prefer suppliers such as tour operators and cruise lines to really focus on the inspiration element, offering killer photography, client testimonials and insider travel trivia, but leave the pricing out.

Sharon Kay Howell, president of Tyler, Texas-based Virtuoso agency Travel Masters, said, "Brochures with a heavy focus on the destination, experiences and culture are my favorites. The brochure doesn't need to contain prices."

Caragol, too, said that the best brochures today are more about storytelling, about whetting clients' appetite. She and others said truly beautiful brochures end up serving as coffee-table books or on customers' nightstands for evening reading.

Caragol said she really only uses paper brochures for certain types of vacations, such as complex escorted tours, FIT travel and cruise trips, not necessarily for resort vacations, since resorts have top-notch websites and there are so many of them. Other agents said they like brochures that list and compare resort offerings, such as the brochures that vacation packagers roll out.

Some agents said that brochures remain a crucial reference tool for them, so all the details and pricing information are just as important, if not more so, than the pretty pictures and destination highlights in helping them execute their job.

Beverly Kelly, of Travel Leaders in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., said that while fancy photos resonate with clients, as a travel seller, she is looking more for useful facts, such as the square footage and layout of the accommodations. Kelly said she personally is not a fan of what she called "fluff" brochures, because she still needs them to be primarily informative.

For its 2018 tours, Collette addressed the fact that travel sellers and their clients often engage with brochures differently by creating a brochure specifically for travel agents, called the Agent Resource & Worldwide Travel Guide, in addition to regular consumer brochures.

The guide is meant to be a selling tool for agents, with information upfront such as how to sell guided tours, a training page that dissects the itinerary pages (which are tabbed by destination so agents can quickly and easily find them) and ways in which agents can and should maximize their tour sale.

Inside Tauck’s 2018 brochure designed for children. Today’s brochures are more likely to have testimonials, commentary, fun facts and other magazine-style content rather than be dominated by the itinerary listings and pricing information of older brochures.
Inside Tauck’s 2018 brochure designed for children. Today’s brochures are more likely to have testimonials, commentary, fun facts and other magazine-style content rather than be dominated by the itinerary listings and pricing information of older brochures.

An emotional response

What most agents and suppliers do agree on is that a large part of the staying power of the paper brochure is that it plays into the emotional aspect of browsing for and booking a vacation.

"People still want the printed piece, and they still respond to that printed piece," said Katharine Bonner, senior vice president at Tauck, which has in the past looked at how the digital version of its printed brochure could stand in for the paper version. But ultimately, Bonner said, "The response [to the paper brochure] still merits the investment. I actually think that for many people, that printed piece is kind of the only proof of what they ultimately purchased. They want to hold on to that."

Tauck this year took a unique approach and created a 56-page print brochure just for kids featuring bright graphics, fun fonts and playfully worded text meant to inspire and excite younger travelers whose families were looking to book the tour operator's multigenerational travel product, Tauck Bridges. Rather than conventional day-by-day itineraries, each Bridges trip is described with a combination of a word cloud about included experiences, destination-related factoids, an activity highlight and a fun feature about one of the hotels.

Tauck's first kids' brochure was tested last year, when it was introduced as a digital publication. This year, it was released in print, as well, proving that in the digital age, reaching out to the next generation of travelers through print still resonates.

Travel sellers noted that much like many travelers still want and cherish paper documents, the paper brochure is something they still hold dear as well.

"It's a tactile thing, I think," Kelly said. "People think, 'I'm giving you my money, I would like to not just see what I am getting but also hold something.' I think it is the same thing with documents. Clients are giving us thousands of dollars and get an electronic confirmation? I think it's the old adage, 'I want to have something to show for it.' So as agents on the front line, we want to keep our clients as happy as possible."

Wendy Radmer of Travel Leaders Journeys Travel in Menomonee Falls, Wis., noted that the advantages of using brochures are twofold. For one, she said, if she points her clients to information that is available on the web, she risks losing them to booking directly online. And when her customers are spending $5,000 to $10,000 on their vacation, the brochure gives them something tangible, so that they don't feel empty-handed following their big purchase.

Tauck’s 1934 brochure on summer land cruises.
Tauck’s 1934 brochure on summer land cruises.

Digital reality

While paper brochures are still a major player in pitching and making the travel sale, they are by far no longer the only game in town. Both suppliers and travel sellers now use a much more complicated and nuanced approach in distributing information to their clients, integrating digital brochures, emails, social media posts and texts alongside any paper products they may still be putting out there.

The result is that while brochures have in some ways really evolved to be much more editorial and sophisticated booklets that showcase the products arguably more beautifully than they have ever been showcased before, there is just not the need for as many brochures to be printed as there was in the past. While many customers still use them, plenty don't, and while they might be an important conversation starter, they don't necessarily all go home with clients the way they did several decades ago.

"We have never not had brochures because of digital; we have always printed them," said Contiki's Cooper. "With the rise of digital platforms it has meant that the number of brochures has gone down over time, but the drive for that is less about cost savings and more about sustainability. Fewer brochures means less paper and less carbon in the delivery process."

Cooper said that in an age when companies and consumers alike are more aware of their carbon footprint, Contiki makes a point to use 100% recycled, bleach-free paper.

It seems that now, the strategy behind the design and delivery of paper brochures is quality over quantity.

And no matter where travel suppliers or travel sellers stand on paper brochures or how they engage with them, there is a consensus that paper brochures are not destined to disappear anytime soon.

Said Tauck's Bonner, "I would say that for the foreseeable future, the print brochure is here to stay."

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